The car seat journey is a long one. Your child spends so long in a designated child safety seat, it’s difficult to know when it’s time to graduate from that booster seat. Beyond leaving the booster seat, when are they ready to sit in the passenger seat?
These are great questions to ask. And, as usual with anything car seat related, the trusted information is hard to find. So, we at Safe in the Seat are here again to give you all the deets on moving to the front seat. Here’s when your child can safely move up:
Age And Weight For Front Seat
The National Safety Council states kids should ride in a booster until they’re at least 9 years old and at least 4 feet 9 inches tall and 80 lbs. But, just like the weight and height limits on a car seat, there’s a little more to it than just the numbers.
Riding in the front seat of a car is dangerous. First of all, in a frontal car accident, the front seat passengers experience most of the impact. Second of all, front seat airbags are extremely dangerous for children. Driver and passenger vehicle seats are made for adults, not kids, which is why it’s so important to make sure your child is ready for this transition before letting them ride shotgun.
So, beyond the age, height, and weight requirements, what is there? First, let’s discuss the criteria for moving out of the booster and onto the standard motor vehicle seat. (We’ll get to riding in the front in a moment.) Here’s the 5-step test that will help you determine when your child is ready for this next step:
Your child must be able to put their back and bum flush against the back of the vehicle seat. Not only must they be able to do this, they also need to be comfortable doing it for a long period of time. (Like, the entire car ride.)
While your child’s back is against the seat, can they bend their knees at the edge of the seat and rest their feet flat on the floor? Your kid’s legs must be able to hang perpendicular over the seat without having to slouch or stretch. So those legs need to be long enough for steps one and two to happen together!
The lap belt must be pulled tightly across your child’s hips, touching their thighs — not riding up on their belly.
Next, check the shoulder belt. It should be positioned between the neck and shoulder. Additionally, it needs to lay flat on your child’s body. Watch out for a seat belt hugging too close to the ear or face! It must in contact with the center of your child’s shoulder. Some vehicles have an adjustment feature that allows you to ensure the seat belt fits properly. Check your manual for this function!
The seat belt only functions properly when the passenger is sitting correctly. If your child likes to lean over or lay down or stretch out of the shoulder belt, they might not be ready to move out of a booster. In fact, they should still be in a highback booster if they are not yet able to maintain the proper position.
When your child can pass this 5-step test and they reach the appropriate age requirements, they can start riding in the front. Although it’s a good idea to check your state laws on child passenger safety too. Usually, a child can’t pass all these criteria and sit in a seat in the front until they’re 12 years old. And, even then, remember that your child is safest in the back seats of your car!
Why Are Airbags Dangerous For Children
Kids can’t safely ride in the front seat of a car mostly because of the airbags. In the event of an accident, an airbag shoots out of the dashboard at 186 mph. That’s SO fast. These airbags significantly reduce personal injury in serious collisions, however, airbags are designed 100% for adults.
If a child sits too low, sits too close, or just leans and wriggles within their seatbelt in the front seat, airbag deployment could be deadly. This is because children have underdeveloped spines that are still ossifying. Additionally, their muscles aren’t fully developed and their heads are proportionally large for their bodies. The point is: child bodies cannot take the force of the airbag!
When children sit in the front seat before they’re ready, airbag injuries are common. Kids may experience brain injuries, neck and spinal cord injuries, whiplash, soft tissue injuries, eye injuries, cardiac damage, and broken bones, just to name a few.
Your child’s safety is your number one priority, so don’t rush them to the front seat too soon. Always follow car seat safety advice and put your child in the proper restraint system. It’ll give everyone peace of mind that all passengers are safe in their seats.
Infants (Birth – 12 Months)
An infant should always be in a rear facing car seat. These seats are designed to cradle a child’s delicate body in a crash. You can either get an infant-only car seat or a convertible car seat for this age group! Just check the minimum weight on your convertible seat before you put your itty bitty newborn in there.
Toddlers (1-4 Years)
As your child moves into the toddler years, they’ll grow out of their infant seat, but they’ll need to stay rear facing. In fact, you should keep your child rear facing for as long as possible. This is usually to 40 or 50 lbs, but check your car seat manual for the rear facing limits on your seat. Toddlers will need a convertible or all-in-one seat for this stage.
Little Kids (5-7 Years)
No longer a toddler, but not quite a big kid, children ages 5-7 finally graduate to a front facing car seat! These seats keep your kiddo properly supported with a 5-point harness and top tether, but they no longer need to be facing backwards. Again, don’t move to this stage of the car seat journey until your child has reached the max weight and height on the rear facing function.
Big Kids (8-12 Years)
Keep your child in their front facing car seat until they’ve outgrown it according to the manual. Once they have, you can shift your child passengers to a booster seat and seat belt. Remember, the lap belt must fit snugly around their thighs and the shoulder belt needs to be between the neck and shoulder. Boosters are designed to make sure the adult-sized seatbelt fits properly on a child-sized body, so make sure that booster is adjusted for the right fit!
Child passengers around 12 can finally ride without a booster, only when they’ve passed the 5-step test. However, you should keep your children in the back seats when possible. Even if they’re technically ready for the front seat, they’re objectively safer in the back.
Even if a child can technically and legally sit in the front seat, this next step in your child’s car seat safety should be taken with care.
Though your child might be itching to be an adult and graduate to the front seat of the car, don’t rush it. There’s no sense being “cool” or “convenient” in place of safety. Ensure you have your child in the proper restraint system based on their age, weight, and height.
The reality is your child will need some sort of safety device until they are 10-12 years old, maybe longer. Take the guesswork out of graduating from one seat to the next with our Car Seat Progression eBook. From baby to big kid, feel confident and safe at every stage.
If you’re not sure where your kids are supposed to be in their car seat journey even with this guide, don’t worry. Our car seat consultants can check your car seats, give you advice, and answer any questions you may have about child passenger safety. You can schedule one here. Also, check out our blog and Instagram for more helpful instructions to keep your child safe in the seat.